Nothing pains me more than cooking in someone else’s kitchen and being forced to use shitty knives. Without a doubt, this happens at a couple of places: vacation houses, homes of people that don’t cook, tailgate parties, and airport restaurants.
(No, I don’t cook in airports, but don’t understand why we can have real forks but can’t have real knives.)
Unless you’re preparing a meal of ice cream or cereal, I’m hard pressed to think of a dish that doesn’t require you to cut something. And the act of cutting is usually the first step of any recipe, meaning that if you start with shitty tools, you’re already on your way to having shitty food.
So, be prepared to get some knife knowledge dropped on you in this post. But, before I start giving you a shopping list, let’s review some vocab.
Stamped Knife – Stamped knives are literally made by a machine using a cookie-cutter template to stamp out the knife from a piece of sheet metal. Sometimes they’re cut with a laser instead of a stamp, but it’s the same product. This means they are cheap. Really cheap. They’re practically paper wrapped in tin foil. They feel cheap in your hands and usually have a cheap plastic handle to go with the cheap blade. Even when they have an edge, they suck, and they lose that edge quickly. (In case you couldn’t tell, I don’t like stamped knives.) The ONLY time to purchase a stamped knife, IMHO, is a filet knife, because you need the blade to be nice & flexible. But, that’s it!
Forged Knife – Picture a blacksmith, working with a piece of steel, toiling through fire & sweat as he swings his hammer to create a mighty blade. This is how a forged blade is made. This means that your knife starts as a block of metal and is then molded through heat and hammer into the final product. The blade is dense, holds it’s edge, feels good in the hand, and will last you a life time. The entire blade and handle are one piece, which makes for excellent balance. Plus, most forged blades tend to be made of high-carbon stainless steel, which helps them hold an edge and not rust.
Tang – The tang is where the blade widens out into the handle. On a forged knife, the blade and tang are one piece, and the handle will be attached to the tang. (Yes, I wrote this part just to use the word “tang”. Hey, here’s a nifty way to remember which type of knife is better: forged knives get full tang.)
Since I won’t be talking about filet knives at all, let’s assume all the knives I discuss are forged knives.
What Knives to Buy
First of all, avoid the knife sets. Even the nice sets with names like Henkel or Wustoff, even though they cost several hundred dollars, which probably seems like crazy money. There’s no way that the knives in that block are all the quality you want, plus it’s doubtful that you’ll use them all.
While I know what I like for knives, I consulted my friend Andy Cox, who is a REAL chef, about what knives to get.
All you really need is a chef knife but the second a knife, or French knife. There’s two ways to go German (e.g. Henkel or Wustoff. These are heavy high carbon stainless steel, which mean they are are malleable enough to take an edge but not so soft that they will rust. I started with a Henkel Professional S Series 10″. Unless you’re going to be doing some serious chopping I recommend an 8″ for home cooks.
The second way to go is Japanese like Global knives. Also high carbon stainless but much lighter. Different feel totally. I have graduated to a Japanese knife (Mac brand) it’s a 7.5″ santoku, which means the end curves down rather than up or flat.
What you need to do is decide what feels right to you. I know places like Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table will let you handle and sometimes even try knives and they will have Henkel, Wustoff, Global, and proabably Shun knives for you to get a feel. Don’t buy a block of wustoff for $200, they are crap. Spend from $100-$130, but this knife should last for ever. Ask they sales rep about care but they are likely similar.
My Mac is only high carbon so I have to clean it immediately after each use. Once you know what you want you can go online or wait for a sale.
So there’s the professional’s opinion: get a good chef’s knife. Spend the money on this one good knife and you’ll be happy.
I couldn’t agree more. I pretty much use my chef’s knife exclusively for everything. I have 3 good knives, pictured below.
From left to right, the knives are:
I really only use the Santoku. The ceramic is nice, but you can’t use it for certain tasks due to the risk of it snapping. The Nakiri (which is Japanese for “vegetable slicer”) was actually left to me by a friend that passed away, so I really don’t use it for sentimental reasons, but it is a good knife.
But, I’m getting to the point in my culinary career where I feel like I need to make some more knife purchases. Right now I’m looking at a filet knife, a boning knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife. I also may upgrade to a larger Santoku blade, but I do like the size of my Shun, as it’s big enough for most chopping & slicing, but small enough to do finer work.
Since a knife is such a personal tool, does anyone have their own preferences? (If you say stamped, I WILL cut you.)